The Evolution of the Snake Pit

Last week, I was very excited to see that the fine folks at IMS have released the names of the entertainment for this year’s Indy 500 Snake Pit presented by Coors Light. Please understand that I say that in my most sarcastic tone possible. The lineup includes Skrillex, Alesso and Illenium. The only one of those three that I have heard of is Skrillex, because I remember him playing at IMS before and I also remember my son being very impressed that he was there, since he is an aspiring electronic music artist himself.

The re-emergence of the Snake Pit is a curious phenomenon to me. For years, Speedway officials did their best to get rid of the Snake Pit. Now, it is something they proudly promote with a corporate sponsor.

For those that don’t know or have been successful at blocking the Snake Pit out of their subconscious – what became the Snake Pit can trace its origins all the way back to the 1940s.

From the very beginning, spectators have been allowed in the infield. In the old days, those that couldn’t afford a grandstand ticket would line up along the inside rail to watch the race. In those days it was customary for all the fans and spectators to don a suit and tie for the race, no matter how hot it was. Some might take their coats off and drape it over their shoulder or hold it over their back – but it was rare for the tie to ever come off.

When the race resumed after World War II, it was the first sign of a more casual attire and attitude among the fans. During down times, card games were known to break out in the crowds. In the fifties, college kids were becoming more and more frequent at the Indianapolis 500. As is always the case, college kids had no money so they opted for the cheapest place to be for the race – the infield. Inside Turn One evolved into the gathering place for the college crowd. Soon it became more popular just to go and be seen at the race than it was to actually watch the race. But other than a few adult beverages being consumed, the younger crowds were still pretty well behaved.

That all changed in the mid-to-late sixties. According to Track Historian Donald Davidson, you can draw a distinct parallel between the music of the times and the change in behavior of the Turn One crowd. At the beginning of the sixties, the music was still tame with Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys as good examples. According to Donald, when The Rolling Stones started influencing the young minds by the mid-sixties – that’s when things became raunchy, and the infamous Snake Pit came into being.

My firsthand experience with the original Snake Pit came in 1967. It was Race Day. I as eight years-old and my entire family was in attendance – my father, my mother and my two older brothers. As usual, we arrived at the track very early and got a good parking spot somewhere in the infield – where exactly, I have no idea.

The race ran for only eighteen laps before the rains came and the bottom dropped out. This was no gentle spring shower – it was a downpour. We sat in our covered seats for a while, but it was soon announced that the race would be postponed until the next day. Even though the rain had let up substantially, it was still raining and we had to get back to our car – us and everybody else.

Being only eight years-old and the fact that this happened fifty-two years ago, my memory is a little fuzzy on how exactly we got back across the track to the infield. We either took the tunnel that resurfaces near where the old Master Control Tower was, or they opened up the gate near Turn One and we walked across the track. Quite honestly, I don’t remember.

What I do remember vividly is what I saw next. Somehow, we ended up going through the Snake Pit near Turn One. Being the youngest in the family and only eight years-old, I remember I was holding my mother’s hand as we navigated through the crowds, the mud and the mass of humanity that seemed oblivious to the rain. I saw drunken mud wrestling and other sights that a naïve eight year-old kid from a small town in Tennessee had never seen before.

And then I saw a sight that is still burned into my brain to this very day – a young couple expressing their love for each other in plain sight of anyone walking by, if you catch my drift. At that age in those times, I don’t even think I knew for sure what they were doing, but it sure did look curious. I knew from my mother’s reaction that this was something I wasn’t supposed to see, which made me even more curious. That sight has probably left some psychological scar on me that I’m not even aware of, to this day.

The legend of the Snake Pit grew through the seventies. Perhaps that’s why my father stopped going after the 1972 race – because I had become a teenager by then. Being the most “curious” of the three kids, maybe he just figured it was best to remove that temptation from my life. The thing is, even back then I would have wanted to watch the race, rather than party in the infield.

I have heard stories from people in my age group about their own personal experiences in the Snake Pit in Turn One. Some would go to the race and never set eyes on a race car. They didn’t care. They were there for the party.

At some point, Speedway officials decided that the Snake Pit was bad for business and it needed to go. Rather than banning the debauchery that went on, they instead tried a more subtle approach. They paved a good portion of the area, turning the usually muddy party area into parking lots. Over time, Turn One was turned into a parking/hospitality area that left no room for those only there to party.

By the time I returned to the Indianapolis 500 as an adult in 1992, the old Snake Pit area of Turn One was a completely sterile environment. What hard-core partying there was had migrated up to the north end in Turn Three. While it was still very rowdy, it was nothing compared to what I saw in 1967 or the stories I heard from the seventies.

My then-wife and I parked inside Turn Three on that cold morning in 1992. We pulled into our spot just before 7:00 am. Next to us were some college kids throwing a football with a full keg that had already been tapped, sticking out of their trunk. We had arrived earlier than expected and with it being so cold, we decided to sit there with the engine running for a little bit just to stay warm. The kids next to us were hitting the keg hard for their breakfast of champions. When we finally got out of the car to go toward all the activity, we chatted with them for a bit. They were friendly, but you could tell they were well on their way to an early morning buzz.

When the race was over and we finally made it back to the car, the keg was empty and on the ground. In it’s place in the trunk, was one of the kids we had chatted with that morning – drunk, passed out and sort of folded into the trunk. We kind of laughed as we got in our car to join the line of cars trying to get out of the facility. We got behind a full-sized Chevy van with a sliding door. Cars were lined up two-abreast heading for the Turn Four tunnel. As we were waiting for traffic to move, the sliding door on the right side opened on the van in front and a steady stream of urine started pelting the driver’s window of the car next to it.

The car on the receiving end had four people in it. They did nothing. They just sat there and let it happen. I’m not sure I would have jumped out and confronted a van full of unruly drunks, but I’m not sure I would’ve just sat there and taken that. Many of you probably have similar stories you can share that are much more recent than 1992, but that one just sort of sticks in my mind for whatever reason.

As time continued to pass, there was a conscious effort to make the crowds at the Speedway more family friendly. With the new construction of the F1 road course and the new Pagoda, a lot of the rowdiness had been tamed. Some complained that the new construction gave the Speedway too much of a sterile corporate feel, while others were happy that they could bring their kids and not subject them to slobbering drunks or the show I got to witness as an eight year-old.

But somewhere along the way, the name Snake Pit reappeared. I’m not sure when exactly it was, probably a decade ago – possibly more, but Speedway officials were now promoting a party atmosphere under the same name that they tried to erase a generation earlier. It was now an organized festival themed extravaganza in Turn Three with scheduled entertainment on a stage that people were charged extra money just to get into that area.

Donald Davidson figures that after Speedway officials essentially ran off the party-goers of the original Snake Pit, they suddenly realized that they had alienated some good paying customers. I suppose when they started looking for more revenue streams in the 2000s, they decided to create something to bring in today’s party crowd, but tap into the nostalgia for the name Snake Pit.

I’m not going to be the old curmudgeon and scream “Get off my lawn!” about this new version of the Snake Pit. Quite honestly, it doesn’t bother me in the least. I don’t go near Turn Three on Race Day, so it’s no inconvenience to me. And if it provides a revenue stream for IMS and I don’t have to contribute to it – it’s fine with me.

And there’s another plus to it. It’s not uncommon to hear stories from those who went to the original Snake Pit in the seventies just for the party and they found they were fascinated by the cars in the background. As they got older, they realized they had lost interest in the party, but kept coming back for the racing. That’s what we need. I’m not sure if many millennial party goers today will be entranced by a race car, but that’s another topic for another day. Let’s just assume that some will be intrigued by the cars and the racing and a few will become fans of the sport. In the meantime, IMS is getting their money, the infield looks full and they are having a good time at the track.

So it suits me fine for IMS to have a new Snake Pit. Just don’t make me go near it. I had enough of the original when I was an eight year-old.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “The Evolution of the Snake Pit”

  1. BrandonWright77 Says:

    Eh, I have doubts that any of the current Snake Pit Kids will ever become race fans. I usually make a trip back there on race day just to have a look-see and they all look completely oblivious to the fact there’s a race going on. It’s a pretty sad sight really, but I guess if it’s bringing in money than so be it. I never got to witness the original Snake Pit but I couldn’t care less about this one.

  2. I first attended the Indy 500 in the early 1980’s. Having just graduated college, we couldn’t afford tickets to the race (and they were harder to get). For most of the early and mid 1980’s we attended the race general admission and sat in the Snake Pit. The highlight of our years there was seeing Danny Sullivan spin in front of Mario Andretti, in the only part of the track we could see. It was not always the most pleasant situation, as at that time it was dominated by bikers and some were looking for trouble. But most people were pleasant and some even had an interest in the race. The craziness was fun to watch. If ever there was a place to people watch, the Snake Pit was it. If you moved over by the tunnel between turns 1 and 2, you could watch the crazies come in. That was a treat in itself.

    I do think the new “Snake Pit” is contrived and phony. I much prefer my seats these days anyway!

  3. the Kentucky Derby infield is something similar.
    i have never been to IMS’s Snake Pit, old or new,
    so i don’t know if one is “better” than the other.

  4. Those areas always kind of fascinate me. I’ve been going to races of some sort since I was 6 months old, my Dad tuned a flat tracker. I’ve never understood making an effort to attend racing and not view racing.

    Watkins Glen had the Bog, Road Atlanta has a similar area, as does Sebring. They’re everywhere, and some poor souls just want to be a part of a scene. Or maybe be seen and to be the scene!

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